The winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture will be Ben Affleck's tense new thriller "Argo." How do I know this? Because it is the audience favorite coming out of the top-loaded opening weekend of the Toronto Film Festival. Success at Toronto has an uncanny way of predicting Academy winners; I point you to the Best Pictures of the last five years in a row: "No Country for Old Men," "Slumdog Millionaire," "The Hurt Locker," "The King's Speech" and "The Artist."
Aside from the Oscar odds, "Argo" is just plain a terrific film. It tells a story as incredible as it is (mostly) true, about how five Americans were smuggled out of Iran after the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. A fake Hollywood sci-fi production was created as a cover story. There was a real screenplay, a big ad was taken out in Variety, and the CIA's top "extraction" expert, Tony Mendez (Affleck) flew in to pose as a location scout. The five Americans, who had been hiding in the Canadian embassy, were given new names, passports and job descriptions.
Although certain details such as the final minutes of their escape have been pumped up for effect, the underlying story is true. One of the movie's insights is that everybody, everywhere, loves movies and to some degree thinks Hollywood is a big deal. There is a scene here where suspicious Iranian officials are talked through the storyboards of a phony "Star Wars"-type picture, and start smiling. It would be unfair to describe them as credible, because who among us would be any more doubting? The sheer audacity of the scheme is its genius. Months into a global crisis, with Americans tying yellow ribbons around trees, who would suspect that a movie named "Argo" was a CIA front operation? Look! Here's the ad in the trades!
Ben Affleck has already proven himself a gifted director ("Gone Baby Gone," "The Town"). Now he approaches the tricky thriller genre and produces a spellbinder. The Hollywood milieu gives him a fertile opportunity to work humor into a very serious story. John Goodman co-stars as John Chambers, the real life makeup artist who did work for the "Planet of the Apes" pictures and countless others. He has the rights to "Argo" and works with Mendez to fabricate the fake production.
Alan Arkin is hilarious as Lester Siegel, a producer who brings an authentic Hollywood note of cynicism into the project. On the serious side, Victor Garber is down to earth and believable as the Canadian ambassador who opens his doors to the high-risk guests, and Bryan Cranston plays the CIA chief who green-lights the cockamamie scheme.
• • • •
One of the best performances in the festival is by the quickly-rising Danish star, Mads Mikkelsen. In Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt" (2012), he plays a dedicated kindergarten teacher whose life becomes a nightmare when a confabulating 5- year-old girl innocently suggests he has exposed himself to her. Her story begins with something she heard on the playground and tells about her favorite teacher, unaware of its catastrophic consequences.
We understood what she did and why she did it. The importance of the film comes from its focus on how easily such stories gain credibility among adults. Note how in the mind of the school's principal the story escalates from a little girl's prattling to hearsay, to "reports," to fact--all on exactly the same lack on evidence. And listen carefully as the child is questioned by a so-called psychologist and then by the police. The solemn little girl is frightened, and says what she thinks is expected to her. When more than once she says, "I said a silly thing," no adult really hears her or understands what she's admitting.
Vinterberg is one of the founders of the Dogme95 group, which agreed on a set of principles about filmmaking and then commenced to stray from them. "The Hunt" uses conventional film language and techniques to great effect. He's especially good as establishing a small Danish community of good friends, in which suspicion grows like a cancer. When the stories about the teacher spread, he is never given the benefit of the doubt, and it's chilling how easily rumor slides over into fact.
• • • •
"The Impossible" is a powerful drama that begins with the tsunami that devastated Thailand and follows the experiences of a family, before and after. It's another Toronto entry "based on fact" and suggesting that fact can offer more riveting experiences than fantasy.
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, whose "The Orphanage" was one of the most frightening films of 2007, "The Impossible" makes skilled use of special effects, sets and locations. It begins, as it must, with the fearsome sight of a wall of water appearing on a sunny day and pounding across a beach and into the town beyond. The parents (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) and their children are separated, and we follow the survivors as the tireless Thais struggle to aid the victims.
The effects here are as terrifying as the tsunami in Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" (2010), but that was a film with interlocking stories, and this one stays right there in Thailand and regards the aftermath, as members of the family seek fearfully for one another, and the young son Lucas (Tom Holland, very good) rises to awesome adult responsibilities.
• • • •
I've been forced to return home early from Toronto, after a well-meaning man "helped" me by giving me a boost with my trick shoulder. Luckily I saw a lot of entries during and before the festival, and will have another report tomorrow.
Now on sale: The new paperback edition of my memoir, "Life Itself."
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